There’s a lot of articles out there about what you should use to keep weeds away from your vegetables. But one thing everyone can agree upon is that the best way to keep weeds out is to keep them from coming up in the first place.
I’ve tried lots of different ground cover and weed barrier options out there. And I’ve definitely found a few favorites and a distaste for others. I hope this will help you sort out what will most likely work for you. A lot of it has to do with how much effort you want to put in every year, and how much money you’re willing to spend. But there are also some free and cheap options available right in your backyard. Let’s talk about them!
One great way to keep from having a weed problem in the first place is to keep your weeds to a minimum. Unlike other landscape beds, you don’t want to use wood mulch! The biggest reason is that mulch takes years to break down, and a vegetable garden is almost entirely annual plants! It’s much harder to plan a garden each year if you have to relocate last year’s mulch and redistribute around a new layout. Another reason is that so many vegetables are planted from seeds, and will not be able to find sunlight through a layer of mulch– once again, this would be relocate / redistributing mulch.
There are many lines of thought out there about ways to keep weeds away from veggies, and most of it depends on what you have available to you, and how eco-friendly you want to be. One solution is to lay down a thin roll of plastic. This is what many mid-size farms do to keep weeds out. However, it can be very cumbersome for a small backyard garden (many plastics come in large rolls, which would take years to use up in a backyard). The line of logic here is to cut holes in the plastic only where you plant something. This also means that every year, you’ll be layout out a new sheet of plastic.
Another method is to use an organic material like hay to cover the exposed earth. If you can find a bale of hay, this is incredibly easy to spread, and also breaks down over the course of the year– no dealing with and old cover the next year. Hay will also add nutrients to your soil, which is great for nutrient-hogging vegetables like tomatoes and broccoli. Note that hay is not the same as straw! I made that mistake last year, and wondered why I had so much grass coming through. Straw is harvested after the grass has gone to seed, meaning that there will be some grass seed mixed in with the dried stalks. Hay is harvested before the grass goes to seed, so there is only dried stalks in the bale. Another reason that I really like using hay is that you can easily scoot it around where you want to plant– no extensive planning and cutting necessary. It can also be a great source of nest material for the birds. I know the sparrows in my yard certainly love it.
One option I recently heard about is using dried hemp as a cover. This doesn’t have seeds, and will break down within the year similarly to hay. However, I haven’t researched it enough to know if it changes the soil properties when it breaks down (such as changing the soil pH or adding too much of a nutrient that may favor some veggie plants, and not others).
The last option is fairly common with organic gardeners, but I’ve found it to be somewhat finnicky. Some gardeners swear by using wet newspapers to create a cover. From my experience, the newspaper has to be wet enough to form to the earth, but not too wet to turn to mush. I’ve also had problems with this taking too long to break down compared to plant material like hay. But, if you like the idea of using plastic, but want something more eco-friendly, newspaper may be the way to go! This will create a dense barrier like the plastic, so you’ll have to cut holes where you want to plant. Note that magazines should not be used because they contain more chemicals in the ink they use, and the waxy surface takes much longer to break down (the same reasons they’re not composted). If your garden gets a decent amount of wind, you will also likely have to weigh down portions of the newspaper (with a few well-placed rocks or landscape staples) to keep them from flying away. If your yard has a history of some lingering, troublesome weeds, it may be beneficial to but a layer of cardboard a few inches under the topsoil to keep pesky roots from coming back through. Just remember that you’ll have to cut holes through this where you plant so that your veggie roots can spread. You could also use landscape fabric to accomplish this, but it’s more expensive and takes even longer to break down (without adding any benefits to the soil).
What about free, locally available options? Sure! There are a few great options there too. The easiest, most readily available option is grass clippings. As long as you cut your grass before it goes to seed, you won’t be unintentionally planting grass in your garden beds. Keep in mind that you only need about an inch of grass clippings to cover your garden bed. If you put it on too thick, you can end up with a mold problem in the middle of the clump. Another potential option is are tree leaves from the fall. However, it can be difficult keeping them in the bed and not blowing away. In an ideal scenario, you would cut them up into smaller pieces. If you are doing a larger ‘field style’ bed, you may be able to simply spread them on the dirt, and use a lawn mower to chop them up. Once again, since these are plant material, they will break down within a year, and do not need to be ‘dealt with’ next season.
If you want to learn more about using grass clippings, I found this article to be a great resource: https://www.growveg.com/guides/using-grass-clippings-as-vegetable-garden-mulch/
So all in all, if you’re asking me what I would do, I’d suggest hay or dried grass clippings. So what does my COVID garden look like now? I’m glad you asked. I put down hay this past weekend, and it’s looking rather sharp!
Thanks so much for reading along! I hope you find some weed control that you like– it will save you hours of weeding in the future. May your garden bring you peace and calm despite our social isolation. Happy gardening!